Translating Manuscripts for the NEH Ajami Project

By Babacar Dieng

I had a wonderful experience working with the Ajami project as a French language consultant, translating Hausa manuscripts from English to French. Translating these pieces properly was not an easy task. I made a significant effort to immerse myself into the world of the authors of these poems. Many of them were deeply religious Muslims and teachers (Malam) who made frequent allusions to the Holy Quran. I am familiar with that literature as I am a Muslim myself, and when I began the translations, I spent some additional time reading the French translations of the Quran. I believe that this helped me to better capture the diverse metaphors and allusions drawn from the Holy Book that the manuscript authors had utilized.

Collaborating with other NEH Ajami scholars was helpful in the translation and cross-checking process. When I encountered sentences that made little sense in the contexts they were used, I highlighted these areas and sent the manuscript to Fallou, suggesting possible solutions, and we discussed the contextual meaning and proper vocabulary.

A challenge that I faced during the translation was maintaining the beauty of the language and verses, and conveying appropriately various cultural elements and figures of speech. I found it helpful to do some in-depth research about Hausaland during the historical periods that the poems talked about, to understand fully what the authors were saying. To bring some examples, this contextual knowledge enabled me to translate appropriately the parts related to dressing (I decided to use the term tunique instead of robe) and understand some cultural values and customs (such as those pertaining to the role of the women in Hausa society) to render them better in French and convey their meaning and significance.

I found that a major challenge was to appropriately formulate sentences in order to properly account for the local flavor of the manuscripts, the emotions conveyed, and the style and rhythm of the original poems. The Hausa – like many other Africans including the Wolof people such as myself – sometimes seem inclined to “open opened doors.” This can manifest in repetitive words and phrases, such as “wake up, stand and pray.” In such cases, we are at a loss what to say in French: “se lever, se mettre debout pour prier” or simply “se lever pour faire ses prières.” On one hand, the translator does not want to eliminate the local flavor of the language and the rhythm of the original utterance. On the other hand, he also wants to avoid useless repetitions and clumsy sentences. I privileged clarity and simplicity over confusion. To keep the cadence and rhythm of the original poem while maintaining poetic language, I drew on synonyms, trying to choose the most melodic and lyrical ones. Furthermore, I played with word order to achieve proper rhythm and resonance. However, in most cases, I preferred clear and concise meaning over literal correspondence.

Dr. Babacar Dieng is Full Professor and Special Advisor of the Vice Chancellor of Université Gaston Berger of Saint-Louis, Senegal, West Africa. He earned a Ph.D. in English (Comparative Literature) at Howard University, Washington DC, thanks to a Fulbright scholarship. His research interests include African-American literature, postcolonial studies, cultural studies, interartiality, traces of orality in literary works, and diasporic studies.